20 Years: US and then

Later this year The Lawyer will celebrate its 20th anniversary. As the magazine has grown and developed, most recently branching out into podcasts, vodcasts and its daily news service, so has the UK legal market changed out of all recognition.

One of the biggest changes during the past two decades has been the growth of US firms’ local law capabilities. Indeed, you would need a very sharp pair of eyes to spot any reference at all to US firms in the early issues of The Lawyer.

Actually, there is a passing reference to one in the ‘City Update’ (19 November 1987). It tells how the UK-based SCAPA Group, “advised by Washington firm Silver Friedman & Taff”, acquired Villforth, “a West German manufacturer of materials for the paper-making industry”. (Incidentally, in case you were wondering, Silver Friedman & Taff is still rocking along nicely in Washington DC.)

There is certainly no mention of any US firm on the front page of that issue, which somewhat bizarrely led with “Record earnings for accountants”, and also covered the Law Society’s “plan for the ’90s”. This included the development of “a coherent strategy to enable the profession to ‘improve its standing in the community and maximise the opportunities for development'”.

Forget the 1980s. With the blip of the early 1990s recession putting the block on overseas expansion, it was not until 1994 that stories featuring the US firms’ assault on the UK market really began to gather momentum.

In the 26 July 1994 issue, Mark Angelson, then head of the London office of Sidley & Austin, said his firm was preparing to take on exclusively UK lawyers.

“We want to be a substantial City office comprised principally of English solicitors,” said Angelson. (Fact fans may like to know that Angelson is now chief executive officer of $8bn (£4.07bn) Chicago-based RR Donnelley & Sons, apparently the largest provider of printing and print-related services in the world.)

In a comment piece in the same issue, The Lawyer revealed how the recruitment campaigns of US firms were gathering pace. “One in three US firms with offices in London had recruited or were planning to recruit UK lawyers,” it said.

Among the firms looking to beef up locally in 1994 were Mayer Brown & Platt, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, Shearman & Sterling and White & Case, which was reported as gearing up to provide a full English law practice across its international financial sectors (6 December 1994).

Another emerging player was Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy, which, as The Lawyer reported (26 July 1994), was looking to build in London through niche specialisms. Twelve years down the line, managing partner and project finance specialist Phil Fletcher remembers that, when he first arrived in the UK, “most Americans principally practised in US securities”.

He adds: “I was doing project finance and the hires were part of our initiative to break into new areas. When I came over here we were by far the first Americans to focus on that, at least in an English environment.”

A few months later, on 8 November 1994, The Lawyer covered the launch of Kirkland & Ellis‘s London office, “staffed by resident partners Sam Haubold and Stuart Mills, who have transferred from Chicago”.

So which was the firm with the most UK-qualified lawyers back then? Answer: Coudert Brothers. In fact, on 6 December 1994 The Lawyer reported that Coudert was “poised to take on a clutch of partners and senior lawyers from City and US competitors as part of its second phase of growth in London”.

It was not all one way back then though. The same issue reported that Wilde Sapte (before it had heard of Dentons) had “bucked the trend” by taking on a team of US lawyers from New York firm Bigham Englar Jones Houston to run its “new” Lloyd’s office.

Back at the start of the year (1 March 1994), meanwhile, The Lawyer ran a story about Clifford Chance appointing two US finance lawyers, Kevin Kelly and Richard Kosnik, as partners. Rather generously, the then managing partner of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, Ned Stiles, said it was “a very smart move on their part to acquire local capability”.

It was a move echoed by arch rival Linklaters & Paines later that year (29 November 1994), which had recruited a team of US securities lawyers for its New York office, including Edward Fleischman, former commissioner with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Terence Kyle, then head of international finance at Linklaters, said at the time that the appointments would have no impact on the referral work Linklaters received.

“We’re not seeking to compete with US firms across the board and certainly not in their domestic marketplace,” he added. Of course not, Terence.